The Illusion of Consciousness

What follows is a conjecture, my conjecture, not someone else’s peer-reviewed fact-checked observation or theory, although some other person may very well have come up with some or all of the ideas I am presenting.

Consciousness itself is not an illusion. Consciousness exists. It is a phenomenon. But what is this phenomenon? It is not a presentation of reality, but a presentation of an illusion of reality. The illusion seems correlated to the limited segments of reality we can perceive.

We seem to be able to “see through” the illusion if we think about it rationally, but we are unequipped to perceive the actual reality on the other side of our consciousness.

I am not just talking about the physical limitations of our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, although they are the root cause of our limitations. We build instruments of measurement that extend our perceptions, but they will probably never be good enough to present to us raw reality such as it really is.

We walk on the ground, thinking it is solid unless there is an earthquake, but neither the ground nor we are solid. The particles that make up the ground and our bodies are separated from each other like the stars and planets in the night sky but at much smaller scales.

The sea or lake in which we swim is also an illusion. The particles making up the water are separated from each other.

On the other hand, it could very well be that those elementary particles are not solid, but probability waves or energetic perturbations in a field extending throughout the universe or virtual particles and anti-particles popping into and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

You look at a red apple. You give it to your girlfriend, Eve. She sees it’s red too. At least she says so. But there is no such thing as red or any other color. We see certain colors because that’s how the rods in our eyes respond to certain electromagnetic radiation wavelengths in the light reflected off the things we look at. We can’t see infrared or ultraviolet, but we have built instruments that can “see” IR or UV and present it to us as some color we can see.

We go to concerts to listen to music, which is made up of tones, beats, and rests. But there are no such things as tones, beats, or rests. We hear tones and beats because that is how the tympanic membrane and the cilia in our inner ear respond to vibrations in the air, water, or solid. The rests are just the absence of auditory sensations for a certain duration of time.

You taste a juicy steak or smell something lemony. You touch another person, flesh to flesh. I have no intention of deflating these experiences for you, but you get the idea. You can see through the illusion, but we have no desire to do so.

What about space and time, or spacetime? Are there discrete chunks of it or is it continuous? Scientists currently believe the smallest thing that can be measured is a Planck Length, which is equal to the diameter of a proton divided by 10 followed by 20 zeroes. The smallest moment that can be measured is a Planck Time, which is the length of time it takes to travel a Planck Length at the speed of light. According to quantum theory, anything smaller would be impossible to measure and meaningless.

For what it’s worth, I’d put my dollar on space and time being infinitely divisible or, in other words, continuous. My reasoning is that if you posit that spacetime or space and time are discrete and chunky, then there must be something beneath spacetime, to which space and time are “pinned”. Call it whatever you want. Call it reality, unless of course, reality is pinned to some other underlying medium.

We could regress like this ad infinitum and all that we know of reality through our consciousness is an elaborate illusion.

Mike Stone

June 23, 2021


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5 responses to “The Illusion of Consciousness

  1. My take on things like solidity, color, or sounds is to say they exist, but are emergent. They are models of reality that are predictive for many adaptive purposes. But the models have limited efficacy. If we try to use them too far outside of their evolved niche, they start to mislead us.

    That isn’t to say you’re wrong in saying those things don’t exist. For certain purposes, they don’t. But for common everyday purposes, they do. They’re just not what we might naively think they are.

    Anyway, a very interesting post. I’m totally on board with the overall sentiment! Reality is not what we think it is.

    • Thank you for your astute comments, Mike. Would you also say that beauty is an emergent property? I ask because it is also considered to be in the eyes of the beholder. 😉

      • Thanks Mike. Good question on beauty. On the one hand, we can disagree about what is or isn’t beautiful, which makes it particular to each person’s innate and learned associations. We could say something similar for color when we consider something like the infamous dress scenario. Ultimately a color is a conclusion of our brain’s preconscious circuitry.

        Although in the case of color, solidity, and sound, if we’re careful about the conditions, we’re much more likely to agree on them. But beauty seems like much more of a value judgment. Ultimately, both are judgments, conclusions reached by our nervous system. Maybe the takeaway is that there isn’t a sharp delineation here, just increasing variability as our internal associations become a larger part of the conclusion.

      • Yes, I was being semi-facetious in my comment about beauty as an emergent property; although, paraphrasing Freud, truth often hides behind a joke. I’m thinking, though, that the fact that all humans agree on color, solidity, and sound, shouldn’t be a sufficient criterion for whether an emergent property actually exists in objective reality (whatever that might be). I can imagine a group of beings that don’t see colors, solidity, or hear sound, but perceive fundamental particles or fields or waves, forces, superpositions, entanglement, and energy, or whatever objective reality actually is. With respect to solidity, consider the mega-superstructures interconnecting galaxies, which we can’t see, even with our most powerful telescopes, but only deduce their existence. I could imagine beings that could see those mega-superstructures, maybe even the mega-mega-superstructures connecting the universes of our multiverse.

      • Certainly different beings could perceive reality in radically different ways. The way we perceive it is tangled up with our evolutionary history. But I think it pays to remember that as beings in the same universe with the same physical laws, we’d still find a lot of things to agree on.

        There would still be collections of molecules that, due to their material properties, absorb some electromagnetic radiation wavelengths and reflect others. Or collections of molecules that obstruct easy passage of other collections of molecules. And there would still be waves of vibrations in various gases and liquids, indicating things about the environment.

        Color, solidity, and sound are simplistic models our nervous system creates, but they’re not arbitrary. In my mind, that non-arbitrariness earns them entry into club reality. At least for certain purposes.

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